It was the moment which would have made his three-year wait almost worthwhile, but for Callum Booth ecstasy turned to agony in a split-second.
Just six minutes remained on the clock at Tynecastle as the Hibs star appeared to make perfect connection with team-mate Lewis Stevenson’s cross to send the ball arrowing past Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander and into the roof of the net.
Even the Hibs fans behind Alexander seemed convinced the second-half substitute had clinched victory, but the cheers choked in their throats as Jambos’ skipper Danny Wilson got his head to the ball, knocking it to safety and leaving Alan Stubbs’ players to again have to settle for a draw when they felt a win was more than merited.
Three points would also have seen Hearts’ impressive unbeaten start to the season finally ended, while for Booth a rare goal would have helped seal his homecoming having spent the two previous seasons on loan at Livingston and then Raith Rovers, the marauding left-back having been deemed surplus to requirements by former boss Pat Fenlon.
Today, what might have been was still preoccupying Booth, who said: “It was my first derby in three years. I’d missed playing in them – there’s no better game in the league season.
“It’s the one everyone looks forward to and especially the New Year fixture. I honestly thought I’d got the winner. I’d taken a touch on Lewis’ cross, hit it on the volley, and caught it pretty decently.
“I think the goalkeeper was beaten and I could see the fans behind that goal felt the same way, only for Danny Wilson to take it off the line. It would have been some start to the year – it would have been brilliant but it was not to be.”
Having seen Alim Ozturk’s last-gasp thunderbolt salvage a point for Robbie Neilson’s side in the previous derby at Easter Road, Hibs were again forced to settle for a draw, an impressive strike from Jamie Walker having cancelled out Jason Cummings’ earlier goal for Alan Stubbs’ team.
“We were all gutted we didn’t get the three points,” sighed Booth. “I thought the lads were brilliant. All three times we’ve played Hearts this season we felt we have matched them at the very least, and in the last two I think we’ve thoroughly deserved to win them.
“All the boys were disappointed and a bit down but I think it says something that we go to Tynecastle, play the Championship leaders who have now not been beaten in 19 games, and feel unhappy with only a point.
“For our part, we are on a very good run at the moment – we have hit form at the right time and, hopefully, we can keep that going.”
However, even if they manage to do so, the title – which was already looking beyond Hibs – is all but mathematically out of sight. But Booth insisted he and his team-mates’ eyes remain firmly on winning promotion back to the Premiership at the very first time of asking. The 23-year-old said: “There’s never really been any talk of targets other than promotion. It would be nice to win the title, but whether you do that by 20 points or go up through the play-offs it is, at the end of the day, the same thing – you are in the Premiership.
“We’ve put a really good run together, we’ve got some really good player, and, with the January transfer window open, I am sure the manager will strengthen the squad again.”
Stubbs has already made his first move to do so, bringing in Dundee forward Martin Boyle on loan with Hibs youngster Alex Harris heading in the opposite direction.
While he may have caught everyone by surprise in doing so, Booth, who knows the newcomer from his days with Raith last season, believes he’ll be a welcome addition, particularly at a time when Dominique Malonga has left to represent Congo in the Africa Cup of Nations.
He said: “I played against Martin last season. He’s a young player, very fast, very direct. It’s come a bit out of the blue but hopefully he’ll hit the ground running and prove to be a really good signing, as I am sure Alex will for Dundee.”
Booth, too, is hoping to play his part in the coming weeks as right-back David Gray is forced to undergo surgery on the groin problem which has dogged him for weeks, only the player’s courage postponing the necessary operation as he struggled through the pain barrier before eventually being forced to call it a day halfway through the derby.
As had been the case in the three previous matches, Booth was called on to take his place although predominantly left-footed, a point Hearts’ boss Neilson wasted no time in conveying to his own left-back Adam Eckersley in a hurriedly convened touchline conference.
Booth laughed: “I could hear Neilson telling him ‘he’s all left foot, he’s all left foot’, so I put in a few crosses with my right to try to prove him wrong. Obviously, I am left-footed but there’s not too much difference and, sometimes, it can help you coming inside.
“We’d known David had been struggling for a bit, but anyone who knows him knows he’d play through the pain barrier for as long as possible. He’s been brilliant this season, so it was understandable that he was given every chance to play on as long as he felt he could.
“For me, it’s been a case of keeping myself ready as I’ve known in each game there would be a chance of me playing.
“I was out at half-time warming up when Tam McCourt [Hibs’ kit man] came out to tell me I was going on. I literally had two or three minutes notice. But I thoroughly enjoyed my 45 minutes.
“Everything was happening at 100 miles an hour – it’s all so hectic. Only afterwards do you think maybe I should have done this or that during the game. I’m sure the managers would be screaming instructions from the sidelines, but you can hardly hear them because of the noise.
“Now with David facing a wee spell out, it’s a case of me just keeping my head down and working hard in training.
“I’d be delighted to get my chance now, but Jordon Forster, who has played there a few times, is coming back from injury while, of course, the window is open – so you never know.”